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An image illustrating studying design with The Open University

The uniqueness of our research lies in the emphasis on the generic aspects of design activity, rather than developing specific disciplinary areas. The Design Group is a unique teaching and research unit comprising a multidisciplinary team of staff. The group is unusual, and perhaps unique, in being devoted to the subject of design as a distinct domain/discipline. Research in design embraces a broad range of subject areas including architecture, planning, product and industrial design, fashion design and engineering design, with a focus on design as the underlying process and the possibilities this entails. The group approaches design as a natural human ability but also as a special skill or practice that can be nurtured through design education. The uniqueness of our research is that it is not confined to any particular professional area of application, but instead tries to understand and promote design thinking and design processes in different domains: from product and information design, through to engineering design, architecture, transport, town planning and policy. This includes studying the complex processes and environments within which design activity and products are situated, as well as understanding how design activity can become a vehicle for innovation and sustainability.

Generally, a research degree in this area has an empirical component and can include rigorous formal work in developing computational methods and tools. We welcome applications from a wide range of backgrounds. Full-time research students normally work on a project originally formulated by a member of staff. Part-time research students normally work on a project that they have formulated, often related to their occupation, which also fits within the research interests of the group.

Key facts

  • Design at The Open University was ranked third out of 71 submissions to the UK’s 2008 Research Assessment Exercise (RAE).
  • 45 per cent of the Design Group’s research was graded ‘internationally excellent’ and 35 per cent as ‘world leading’ in the 2008 RAE submission.
  • PhD students have at least two supervisors and a separate third-party monitor to help mentor and ensure good practice.
  • PhD students are core contributors to the Design Group’s research culture, with regular seminar programmes in Milton Keynes.
  • Members of the group have secured resources from major research funders such as The Leverhulme Trust, the EU, EPSRC, AHRC and JISC.
  • A leading international design research journal Design Studies was launched from this department in 1979 and still maintains strong links with the group through the editorial board.
  • The OU is part of the AHRC funded Doctoral Training Programme, Design Star. Studentships are available for both part-time and full-time UK applicants (EU – Fees only) who hold a Masters or equivalent qualification. Visit the Design Star web page for more information.


The group has a suite of design research laboratories and is prioritising full-time research degrees that make use of these facilities:

  • Complexity Science and Design Laboratory
  • Design Observatory
  • FabLab
  • Robotics and Autonomous Systems Laboratory
  • Digital Media Laboratory.

Further information

If you have an enquiry specific to this research area please contact:

Dr Emma Dewberry
+44 (0)1908 332940

For general enquiries please contact the Research Degrees Team via the link under 'Your Questions' on the right of the page."